April 9, 2013 at 4:10 PM ET
Could texting while piloting have caused a fatal 2011 helicopter crash? It had more to do with an empty fuel tank and poor decision-making, according to a National Transportation Safety Board inquiry — still, the texts didn't help.
At an NTSB meeting held Tuesday, board members discussed the 2011 crash of a medical helicopter near Mosby, Mo., which killed all four people on board. It is the first fatal crash where text messaging was implicated as a contributing factor.
But during the discussion, the texting took a back seat to far more serious errors made by the pilot. According to the investigation and reports cited at the meeting, he failed to refuel during pre-flight checks, and chose to embark on an exceedingly risky flight. The helicopter ran out of fuel about a mile from its destination. At that point, the pilot failed to perform a technique for safe landing without engine power.
These many failures — combined with the fact, when the crash occurred, the pilot had not been texting for 19 minutes — prompted one board member to object to a proposed "safety alert" that would warn pilots to turn off devices during operational periods.
"This is going to be looked at, I think, by the community as an overreach. It does not really make sense," said board member Earl Weener. The discussion mentioned other crashes where personal electronics devices (PEDs) were suggested as a contributing cause.
"They are going to look at it and say, flying at 100 feet, buzz jobs, not paying attention at flight paths, those are aeronautical decision issues, those would happen with or without a PED," he continued.
On the other hand, sending and receiving texts during critical safety procedures was clearly called out as contributing to the pilot's distraction, along with a lack of sleep and other personal stresses. And while confirmed cases of pilots texting in the air may be rare, the practice is worth formally denouncing, said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.
"If this pilot was doing it, I expect there were probably other pilots doing it — of helicopters, of fixed-wing aircraft — and I think it is worth it to put this information out there," Hersman said during the discussion. "He was not supposed to be doing that. His company had a policy, yet he still did it. I think there is every reason for us to speak on this issue."
To that end, the NTSB recommended that the FAA establish stricter guidelines regarding personal device usage during pre-flight operations such as safety checks.
The crash report categorized distraction due to texting as one of five contributing factors, saying it was "a self-induced distraction that took his attention away from his primary responsibility to ensure safe flight operations." The main causes of the crash were confirmed to be failure to confirm fuel levels, failure to abort the mission, and failure to safely land the craft.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.